Already full of activity, the 700 MHz debate in our nation's capital assumed full-fledged whirlwind status this week, with notable happenings that can be categorized as predictable, unpredictable and just plain confusing -- not unlike a soap opera or reality TV show. The following are one humble observer's perceptions:

Confusing: Indications from Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) that the digital-television transition could be delayed beyond the Feb. 17, 2009, date Congress passed last year (see story below). It should be noted that Dingell never actually uttered those words, but the House Commerce Committee chairman said we need a DTV transition date that "makes sense" and that his committee will be "looking at" changing the date.

Should the wireless industry be concerned that it won't get to use the 84 MHz of spectrum promised by the transition in less than two years? I doubt it. As dramatic as the Democratic victories were in the latest elections, it's doubtful that such a proposal could pass the Senate, much less be signed by the president, as virtually every lobbying group opposes the notion.

The reality is that everyone's budget projections -- regardless of party -- are counting on at least $10 billion in revenue from the 700 MHz auction. The only way the auction won't raise that much is if the transition date gets delayed so far that the bidders can't get a return on their hefty investments soon enough.

My bet is Dingell is making this threat because he really wants Congress to put a lot more money in the consumer-education and converter-box subsidy programs, so no one in the U.S. can claim they didn't know that their analog sets would go dark on Feb. 18, 2009. And there may be a good chance these efforts will get more funding, because his colleagues on Capitol Hill know that Dingell's Survivor reference is absolutely right if this transition is botched: "People will be voted off the island."

Predictable: With the comment period closing this week on the FCC's 700 MHz public-private broadband network plan for public safety, public safety doesn't like the idea, while the commercial wireless industry thinks the FCC proposal is dandy.

This makes perfect sense, because the FCC plan would let the commercial sector play some on the 12 MHz of 700 MHz airwaves allocated to public-safety, while also getting to fully use its 60 MHz in the band. It's a no-brainer for the commercial guys, as there's absolutely nothing to lose. Meanwhile, public safety doesn't like the idea because it would not get exclusive use of its spectrum, as the DTV statute currently dictates.

There are a lot of other nuances, but what we've learned during the past several months is that neither the commercial carriers nor public safety want to pursue a public-private partnership on spectrum they perceive as their "turf" already -- but both groups are happy to pursue the notion on the other's airwaves.

It makes one wonder: Could a public-private partnership work if both public safety and the commercial industry had some spectrum "skin" in the game?

Unpredictable: We may get to answer that question, thanks to a proposal from Frontline Wireless that would have the nationwide broadband network built on 10 MHz of commercial spectrum and at least 12 MHz of public-safety spectrum.

Led by a trio of heavy hitters in the telecom space, Frontline's filing with the FCC sounds like a perfect middle ground that addresses the concerns associated with the Cyren Call proposal and the FCC plan. Frontline provides a broad outline of one network being run over two categories of spectrum with two national licensees working in harmony while still addressing the needs of local entities. How will these multiple relationships work? Frontline's not saying just yet, but promises to provide greater detail with filings in other FCC proceedings.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Frontline's proposal is that the company exists at all. In recent weeks, commercial wireless representatives have said investors wouldn't want any part of a public-private partnership operating on 30 MHz of spectrum. Yet Frontline has secured startup funds, nabbed three big-time industry leaders (see story below) and presumably believes it can raise the cash to bid serious bucks in the 700 MHz auction based on a network that only utilizes 22 MHz. Maybe the economics aren't so bad, after all.

Frontline's entrance into the 700 MHz drama is a welcome plot twist that should help the United States determine whether a public-private broadband network can be accomplished. Grab some popcorn and get comfortable, because this should be a reality show worth watching the next few months. And, if Dingell somehow gets his way, it's a show that could run a lot longer.

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